Brussels has gained muscle with successive crises as some European countries shed authority
KYIV, Ukraine—When Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and intervened in the country’s east, France and Germany led Europe’s response and officials in Brussels played a side role. Today the positions have flipped, placing the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, in a central leadership role.
The EU’s new muscle was evident Thursday when commission President Ursula von der Leyen brought 15 EU commissioners to Kyiv. The commission is overseeing billions of euros of economic aid to Ukraine, funneling military assistance to its military and planning its postwar reconstruction.
Political power and leadership in the EU traditionally sits with its big powers: France, Germany and, once, the U.K. Today, the U.K. is out of the EU while Paris and Berlin spar more than align.
The European Commission, which is led by unelected officials, proposes policies and legislation to Europe’s national leaders and the European Parliament, the EU’s one directly elected body. It hasn’t traditionally offered political leadership, and stepping into the role can leave it exposed to backlash if things go wrong.
Into that leadership vacuum stepped Ms. von der Leyen, building on the new authority the commission gained handling the bloc’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit.
Weeks before Russia’s invasion last year, top EU officials worked with the White House on craftings sanctions to impose on Moscow if Russian President Vladimir Putin went to war.
The commission has shaped subsequent rounds of sanctions. It has taken the unprecedented step for the EU of helping coordinate and fund members’ weapons sent to Ukraine. Last week, the Group of Seven asked the commission to host the body overseeing Ukraine’s reconstruction, placing a top EU official on its steering board.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron last month in Paris.
The commission has played a central role in handling economic spillover from the crisis, helping shape and negotiate the delicate compromise among the bloc’s 27 member states crafted for the Continent’s energy crisis, sparked by Russia’s decision to largely turn off its gas exports to the EU.
EU officials say they hope to have Ukraine permanently within the EU’s cellphone free-roaming system by year’s end and they are currently delivering millions of LED lightbulbs and thousands of generators to keep Ukraine’s energy system working.
In 2014, when Russia sent troops into Ukraine, France and Germany brokered the Minsk accords with Moscow and Kyiv. They dominated the bloc’s subsequent approach to Mr. Putin, which is now seen by many as having been too generous.
The commission’s power, meanwhile, has gradually increased after the eurozone financial meltdown that started in 2009. The commission held EU members united through tough Brexit negotiations and then steered the Covid response.
The pandemic saw Brussels emerge as the beneficiary of an EU fiscal revolution, a €750 billion recovery fund, paid for by issuing large-scale EU debt. The commission wields significant control over distributing the funds.
The commission has turned to a similar funding source to raise €18 billion in emergency loans for Ukraine for 2023, which it started paying out last month.
Meanwhile, the balance of power among EU member states has shifted. The French-German axis has become increasingly fractious, with frequent discord and a new government in Berlin, more focused on coalition-building at home than in Europe.
“The more dysfunctional the Franco-German engine, the bigger the space also for the commission’s independent action,” said Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relation’s Warsaw office. “In the past, this tandem were precooking EU decisions. Now…it is the commission making the proposals.”
The commission’s visibility in the Ukraine crisis doesn’t come without risks for Brussels, which just a few years ago was facing a nationalist revolt.
Without a democratic mandate, the commission can easily be blamed when things go wrong. The public backlash the commission felt when it was slower than the U.K. and the U.S. to get its Covid-19 vaccines program up and running was a reminder of the dangers.
“I do think there’s a chance you get a backlash. The more you shift these kinds of decisions into the hands of the so-called faceless bureaucracy,” said Pepijn Bergsen, a former Dutch economic adviser and now a research fellow at Chatham House, “the more frustration you get if things don’t work out.”
Yet insiders say Ms. von der Leyen, who was plucked out of a difficult period as German defense minister and installed as European Commission chief by EU leaders in 2019, has played her cards adroitly.
While there have been missteps during the war—an EU embargo on imported Russian oil that was insufficiently prepared and a failure to properly ensure the flow of fertilizers from Russia to the developing world—Ms. von der Leyen has generally shown an ability to prod member states for more ambition at times while respecting member states’ red lines.
“In the past, we were sometimes surprised by proposals and initiatives. We are not surprised anymore,” said a senior EU diplomat.
In few areas over the past year has the European Commission played a bigger role in cajoling the member states than on Ukraine’s EU membership bid. The bloc’s leaders agreed to accept Ukraine as a formal candidate last June. In Kyiv on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pressed Ms. von der Leyen to advance his country’s membership bid but powerful EU countries remain cautious.
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In a bloc split between a hawkish camp on the war and sanctions, led by Poland, and a Western camp led by France and Germany, who have at times reached out to the Kremlin, Ms. von der Leyen’s team is likely to remain an influential European leader on the war.
Pascal Lamy, a former World Trade Organization chief who was also a powerful official in Brussels, says the French-German tensions aren’t likely to disappear quickly because the war has put “the spotlight on the three issues where the French and the Germans never agreed.” Those are EU defense policy, energy policy and the issue of common EU government spending to cover the crisis’ costs.
He also worries that the war could weaken Europe’s tentative efforts to build some security and defense autonomy, prompting the EU to retreat behind an American security umbrella that has once again proven crucial in this crisis.
Write to Laurence Norman at email@example.com
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